Panel examines state of religious freedom in U.S.

Monday, September 10, 2001

NEW YORK — At times growing testy, scholars and religious leaders late last week debated stem-cell research, President Bush’s faith-based initiative and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — even though none of these issues was actually on the program.

The topic up for discussion Sept. 7 at the First Amendment Center was instead the First Amendment freedom that underlies all these issues — the freedom of religion — and the sometimes disruptive place of that freedom in modern public life.

“Humanity is not doing very well living with deep religious differences,” said Charles Haynes, First Amendment Center senior scholar and moderator of the event, referring to regions such as Northern Ireland and the Middle East that have been torn apart by religious conflicts.

“How are we, in the 21st century, going to make sure that we (in the United States) don’t become more like that?” he asked.

Haynes and three panelists gathered to discuss the release of “Religion in American Public Life: Living with Our Deepest Differences,” a book-length report produced by the American Assembly, a national educational group affiliated with Columbia University.

Haynes and each of the panelists participated in the American Assembly conference that led to the report’s publication. While the panelists praised the civility of a discussion that contained so many diverse views, they still clashed on a number of issues.

For example, Southern Baptist leader Richard Land repeatedly denounced government efforts to interfere with religious organizations, while American Jewish Committee counsel Richard Foltin stressed the need for government to protect religious rights.

“As a Baptist, I was always uncomfortable … (and) we were always uncomfortable with government-based religion,” Land said. “Baptists have a problem with the government sponsoring religion.”

“There is a level of agreement (with the Baptist view),” Foltin said, “but it’s at a certain level of abstraction. We’re going to agree, for example, that the government should not establish religion, but we’re going to disagree on what that means.”

Differing interpretations of First Amendment religious freedom and religious protection will become increasingly important in the 21st century, said Georgetown University scholar Diana Hayes.

Hayes said that in her Georgetown classroom, Catholics often sit beside Protestants who sit beside Jews and Hindus and Muslims and others, even though Georgetown is historically Catholic.

This intermingling of religious viewpoints is changing the tenor of the discussion about religion in the U.S., she said.

“We have begun to realize that religious liberty includes religions other than the Judeo-Christian religions,” she said. “We have begun a dialogue about, say, how does one worship in Hinduism … (and) how can we talk across those differences.”

Hayes added that the American Assembly conference, a kind of microcosm of American religious society, was remarkable and hopeful in “that we were able to come to common ground.”

The report born out of that conference tackles questions such as:

  • How should Americans address religion in public education?
  • How should the First Amendment guarantees apply to current controversies concerning religion in public life?
  • Should partnerships between the government and religious institutions be encouraged?
  • How should Americans live with their differences on such issues as sexual orientation, abortion and physician-assisted suicide?
  • What role should religion play in business and corporate governance, not-for-profit organizations, academia, citizen action, and science and technology?

While it was impossible for American Assembly conferees to reach consensus on many issues, panelists said they were encouraged by everyone’s willingness to discuss their differences and to listen to one another.

“We will do well … because we can go at it” and disagree on some issues, but still get along as a nation, Haynes said.

“I think that really is the hope for the 21st century,” he added. “That really is the hope for the world and our nation.”

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